Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Sunrise, Sunset

The American Federation of Teachers has several hundred thousand dollars invested in Israel bonds.

It has publicly endorsed a two-state solution promising self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and rejected BDS. It has promoted its work in Israel to facilitate peace and coexistence via collaborative initiatives that bring Jews and Palestinians together, presenting them as models for similar work aiming dissipate conflict and dismantle unjust structures domestically and internationally. It has proudly hosted an Israeli MK, Stav Shaffir, at its convention to speak on politics, justice, and inequality. Its leader, Randi Weingarten, has been vocal about her passionate connection to and care for Israel, and ran on the left-wing Hatikvah slate for a position in the World Zionist Congress.

The AFT is not, of course, blindly "pro-Israel" in all things. It condemned the nation-state law, and the denial of entry visas to Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. It grouped Bibi Netanyahu in with other democratically-elected authoritarians such as Orban, Erdogan, Putin, Bolsonaro, and Modi. Sometimes, in opposing certain Israeli policies, it has collaborated with other Israeli groups, such as joining with Israeli academic and student unions to oppose a politcally-motivated "academic code of ethics".

None of this is especially noteworthy. The AFT's positions on Israel are ordinary and unremarkable -- entirely the norm in contemporary establishment liberal politics.

Today, there was a big story that the DC branch of the Sunrise Movement was withdrawing from a DC statehood rally because the sponsoring coalition, Declaration for American Democracy, includes three Jewish groups Sunrise considers to be impermissibly "Zionist": the National Coalition of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. Sunrise DC said it would refuse to operate in any space where such groups were included, and accordingly urged DFAD to consider expelling them from the coalition.

Others can write on the pernicious effect of drawing the exclusionary border this far -- one that would have the effect of locking out the overwhelming majority of even progressive Jewish political organizations and actors from progressive organizing. Others, too, may wish to comment on Sunrise DC's de rigueur claim that in standing up against Zionism it was standing up for "Black and Brown Jewish-Israelis" -- an assertion so far removed from the actual politics and priorities of those communities that one wonders whether Sunrise DC actually believes it or is simply engaging in reflex. And others can look at the repeated invocations of "indigenous" rights and consider my hypothesis from just the other day that "As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned 'indigenous' is where political commentators go to when they don't want to compromise a single inch but still want to appeal to some sort of putatively non-partisan moral principle."

I want to focus on something a little different, though.

The three groups Sunrise DC targets -- NCJW, RAC, and JCPA -- primarily concentrate on domestic issues. JCPA considers some amount of Israel advocacy to be a priority, the other two do not. All three, to the varying extents they do "work" on Israel, take positions that are materially indistinguishable from that of AFT. That is, they are engaged in the normal promotion of two-states, co-existence, collaboration, liberal values, and so on, that is utterly ordinary and unremarkable not just among Jewish liberals, but among liberals, period.

Perhaps you see where I'm going with this. The American Federation of Teachers is also a member of the Declaration for American Democracy. And yet Sunrise DC did not say -- I suspect it did not even occur to them to say -- that AFT should be expelled, or that it would not operate where AFT was present. I wager that Sunrise DC only "checked" the Jewish groups to see whether they were "problematic". The litmus test it imposes is one it imposes on Jewish groups only. Jews are the ones for whom Sunrise checks to see if they're dangerously "Zionist" in orientation, and so Jews are the ones subject to the exclusion.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so sanguine about AFT -- Randi Weingarten is prominent enough as a Jewish leader that they very easily could be the next target. But the broader point would remain: if Sunrise tried to say it would not work with all groups who have roughly the political outlook towards Israel as does the NCJW, it could not work with essentially any mainline liberal group, because the stances NCJW takes are materially identical to those taken by essentially every major liberal group, Jewish or not.  I expect that the overwhelming majority of groups in the DFAD (at least, those of any size) who have thought about Israel have thought in terms that are roughly in line with what NCJW thinks. If such an outlook is unacceptable, then all of them should be targeted for removal or ostracization.

That wouldn't be practicable of course. What is practicable and tractable is to ask the question of the Jews, specifically, and make the demand of Jewish groups, specifically. A Jewish litmus test, not a general one.

This observation is not quite the same thing as saying that Sunrise is "okay" with the sort of mainstream liberal outlook on Israel so long as its non-Jews expressing it. Even if the end goal is to demand that every group abandon this outlook, the above points about practicability and tractability can justify -- on a bloodless, purely tactical level -- a decision to focus on the Jewish groups first: a point of vulnerability, an easy place to put one's foot in the door. How often have we heard, after all, that boycotts need not and reasonably do not target everyone at once, but pick their targets at the point of maximum leverage and impact? The logic extends here too. How much should it matter that the selection criteria is "go after the Jews", if we accept for sake of argument that the reason "the Jews" were picked is not merely some unthinking atavistic hatred but makes "political" sense? The answer depends on how much you think unthinking atavistic hatred is the sine qua non of wrongful discrimination.

So is that Sunrise's end game -- it knows that lots of groups have "sinned" identically" to NCJW et al, but it is making a strategic choice to go after the Jews first? On that point, I am unsure. Is AFT not on Sunrise's hit list just out of ignorance -- they didn't bother to check? Or would it stay off the list for the time being because of the practical problems (or strategic prioritization) identified above -- limiting their test solely to Jewish groups being manageable in a way that an actual universal principle would not be? Or perhaps it is the case that the policies AFT promotes re: Israel, whether or not they're the ones Sunrise DC would choose, are within the "zone of acceptability" -- at least when non-Jews are promoting them. I suspect that they would certainly be happier if AFT, too, switched its policies to be more in line with anti-Israel maximalism. But I also suspect they'd be happy enough if the "only" practical effect of their policy is that the Jewish groups are sabotaged, and everyone else can keep on going largely how they're going. Actually changing AFT's outlook on Israel may be a happy bonus, but the primary mission objective is to kneecap the Jewish organizations, and their acting in pursuit of the latter goal far more than the former.

To some extent, I think all of this -- imagining a set of policies Sunrise DC opposes and then imagining how they're trying to alter or punish organizations for adopting them -- is giving Sunrise DC too much credit though. Why? Because I think what they actually did was not look at a bucket of policy and practices and say "we simply cannot support an organization that does this or advocates that", but rather simply check to see which (Jewish) groups had "Zionist" somewhere on their website and called it there.  And perhaps you are tempted to think that this demarcates an actual difference between NCJW and AFT -- the former will use the word "Zionist", the latter won't. I already have in my mind's eye some Jewish Currents editor frantically looking to screen grab some obscure corner of the NCJW website where they dare characterize what they do as "Zionist", in order to Silence Liberal! those who insist that NCJW's work on Israel is not remotely characterizable as oppressive or problematic.

It is true, after all, that at least among left-of-center "pro-Israel" folk, "Zionist" is a term mostly restricted to the Jews. Take two Democrats with identical, AFT/NCJW-style views on Israel, one Jewish and one not, and the former is going to be far more likely to characterize herself as "Zionist" than the latter, even though they advocate for the exact same things and have the exact same vision of what justice and equality look like in Israel and in Palestine. But if that is the case, and the distinction is purely terminological, and the difference between who uses that word lies overwhelmingly along the dimension of "Jewish" versus "non-Jewish", then using that as the demarcation point between acceptable and unacceptable reduces into different standards for Jews and non-Jews -- right back to where we started. Be embarrassed, those of you who clung to the idea that this makes out a neutral distinction.

In any event. What Sunrise DC is doing is targeting Jewish groups for especial scrutiny and exclusion as Jewish groups. That it does so while nominally accepting other Jewish groups is immaterial -- it is the heightened scrutiny, not the conceptual possibility of clearing the bar, that is the problem. And it is not correct to say that Sunrise DC's selection criteria is neutral -- it isn't; the reasons these groups are targeted is not because their policy outlook on Israel is wrong in a way that other mainline liberal groups avoid, they are targeted because they have the "wrong" outlook and they're Jewish -- the conditions are jointly necessary, neither is sufficient on its own.

This is antisemitism. I hope it is recognized as such.

I'll end on a very small hopeful note. They are many differences between the situation of Jews in Democratic Party politics compared to Jews in UK Labour. But one major one is that there are simply more of us, who have been doing this for a very long time, and are deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire liberal political apparatus at every level. Groups like the NCJW and the RAC have been building out connections and coalitions and relationships across the liberal political space since well before the Sunrise DC activists were a twinkle in anyone's eye. We have the high ground, in more ways than one. And if a few political performance artists think we'll be dislodged that easily, they are in for an awakening.


Daniel S. Goldberg said...

I either do not understand or do not agree with your point that holding Jewish groups qua Jewish to a different standard than non-Jewish groups is justifiable "on a bloodless, purely tactical level -- a decision to focus on the Jewish groups first: a point of vulnerability." What is the criteria for "bloodless"? And what is it that makes the Jewish groups a point of vulnerability other than the fact that they are Jewish groups?

I cannot see any legitimate way to parse out the behavior from impermissible conduct that singles out Jews qua Jews but does not even consider whether non-Jews holding identical political positions might merit the same critique (indeed, that it did not even occur to the Sunrise Movement to do so is a perfect illustration of how structural racism operates).

Moreover, I suspect you do not see how this really saves Sunrise Movement from their antisemitic behavior inasmuch as you conclude (quite rightly) "the reasons these groups are targeted is not because their policy outlook on Israel is wrong in a way that other mainline liberal groups avoid, they are targeted because they have the "wrong" outlook and they're Jewish."


David Schraub said...

I don't think the "tactical" justification works as a moral justification. The point of this passage was to underscore that point -- even if it is the case that Sunrise is targeting Jews not out of some atavistic hatred but rather based on a "purely" strategic assessment of the situation and how to best leverage limited resources for maximum impact, it would still be antisemitic. As you know, I very much oppose the view of antisemitism (or any -ism) as requiring proof that the "bottom" motivation is raw affective antagonism, and this is good illustration of the point.

Daniel S. Goldberg said...

I guess I just don't understand what the distinction is accomplishing in the argument. You know as well as anyone that we needn't ascribe any kind of atavistic hatred to an actor to point out the ways that the actor's conduct can perpetuate structural violence. So let's forget that assumption and just acknowledge the fact -- as you do in your conclusion -- that Sunrise Movement's willingness to require special evidence of good behavior from Jews when the same is not expected from non-Jewish groups with identical political positions and commitments is structural antisemitism. So why even discuss the possibility of their motivation being "bloodless" and "purely tactical" as analytical categories separate and distinct from their oppressive impact?

I'm pretty sure we agree on the conclusion and on the reasons for the conclusion. And perhaps more importantly that we needn't ascribe invidious antisemitic motivations to point out how the actor's behavior in this moment perpetuates structural antisemitism. But as you so rightly point out, this is pretty fundamental anti-oppression analysis.

David Schraub said...

I don't need persuading that the sine qua non of discrimination is an underlying motive of atavistic hatred. But plenty of people believe that, or are unthinkingly disposed to view that as a necessary condition. So when confronted with a case like this, they tend to harmonize their assessment of "is this antisemitic" with "is this motivated by atavistic hatred" -- and that runs in both directions, and not necessarily in the intuitive causal direction. It's not just people concluding it is motivated by hate, and therefore antisemitic, or not motivated by hate, and therefore it isn't. It's also people concluding it is not antisemitic, and therefore not motivated by hate, and that it is antisemitic, and therefore motivated by hate. And for a non-trivial group of people in that last set, this conclusion (that it is motivated by hate) is what allows them to distinguish cases that really aren't all that distinguishable (on the grounds that those other cases are not motivated by hate).

Many people are responding to the claims that this is antisemitic by saying "no it isn't, because there are reasons behind it that are not merely Jew-hate". I think some of those people would pull up a bit short as against the point that this is a litmus test imposed on Jews only -- that, to many, indicates it is antisemitic, but they still mentally conflate it with "because it's evidence that the problem is with Jews, and not with specific wrongful conduct" (since why else would they only target Jews for conduct they are fine with when engaged by others, if their problem wasn't with Jews-qua-Jews). I'm pointing out that no, even in this case, one could if one was so inclined explain the conduct for reasons other than "to the bottom" Jew-hatred -- and that shouldn't matter.

Erl said...

A number of key points above serve as a rebuttal to an (anticipated) rebuttal, but are embedded in the essay. A psuedo-dialogue might make their function clearer, between A (roughly, our host) and B (an imaginary interlocutor sympathetic to Sunrise DC).

A: Sunrise DC is trying to push Jewish groups out of the liberal coalition, and that's terrible, and antisemitic.

B: No, Sunrise is simply trying to push Zionist groups out.

A: But Sunrise's targets were exclusively Jewish groups, and it ignored other groups with materially identical positions and activities. We can see this by comparing those groups to the AFT, and noting that most of the targeted groups also don't really do any foreign policy work.

B: Maybe Sunrise only checked on the Israel politics of Jewish groups.

A: It seems likely. But that would be bad! Imposing a test on Israel that only Jews are required to pass seems pretty clearly antisemitic. "Impose a general test, only require disfavored groups to pass" is the classic Jim Crow tactic—all the more so when the supposedly-general test is related to a stereotype about the targeted group.

B: That's true. Hmmm. Maybe they're only targeting groups that affirmatively adopt the label "Zionist".

A: Maybe. But the use of the term "Zionist" is a characteristically Jewish way to talk about shared liberal commitments. If a conservative group attacked organizations promoting "Tikkun Olam" and ignored those promoting "Social Justice", we would rightly recognize that as antisemitic.

B: Fair enough. So maybe Sunrise DC genuinely objects to the Israel policies of the vast majority of their coalition partners—they're just targeting the few specifically-Jewish groups strategically, out of a desire to force change where it's most visible. Perhaps that's not antisemitic.

A: Surely you don't mean to argue that "opposing the Jews because they are a small yet visible minority whose targeting you can exploit for political gain" is not antisemitic! That's practically a strategy manifesto for antisemitic politics throughout history!

B: I concede. You have neutralized all of my objections.

A and B, together: Whether Sunrise DC's priorities were based on laziness, linguistics, strategy, or antipathy, their actions specifically targeted Jewish members of the liberal coalition, and we should regard those actions as structurally antisemitic.


As you can see in the dialogue structure, A doesn't actually believe any of B's claims—but in the essay above, David adopts those claims arguendo on a section by section basis to show that they don't rebut the core observation about antisemitism.

Lastyear said...

Erl, this is the weak link in your argument..

"But the use of the term "Zionist" is a characteristically Jewish way to talk about shared liberal commitments."

The term "Zionist" has a very specific meaning (one who supports the existence of Israel as a Jewish state) and Jews don't use it in the way you describe above.